For years, a good district website meant being a digital bulletin boards of upcoming events, recent news, and downloadable PDFs. It was simply a digital communication tool. But in the past three years, there's been a major shift in the role of a district's website: it has switched from a sole communication tool to a marketing tool, as competition quickly grew. Public schools are no longer just competing with local private schools, but now, other school districts and most frequently, charter schools.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, public schools enrollment is facing an all-time low, with some states even seeing dramatic decreases, like Connecticut and New Hampshire.
What's at the root of the enrollment pains?
First: picky parents.
With 60% of homebuyers making moves based on school districts, 50% of parents exercising school choice, and 25% of students attending a different school (either charter, private, public) than they are assigned to, parents are no longer just sending their kids to the school in the town they live, they're researching their options.
Second: charter schools.
While they currently only account for 5% of total public school enrollment, their popularity is quickly growing, especially in urban areas.
So, how can public schools compete in the increasingly competitive space? Of course they need to invest in their district itself — the teachers, programs, and buildings. But in order to get the word out about the quality of their education, districts need to invest in their most important marketing and communication tool: their district website.
Back in 2015, Laguna Beach Unified School District signed on with Finalsite, recognizing the importance of using their website as a marketing tool. Since then, we've seen a wave of districts of all sizes make the shift towards a marketing-first website, including Jackson County Public Schools, a very small district in rural North Carolina, who knew a new website was one of the most important tools to keeping students in their schools, and not leaving for local charter or public schools.
While LBUSD and JCPS were early adopters in the public school space of a marketing-centric website, since then we've seen hundreds of districts follow in their digital footsteps. So today, we're listing off the five best district websites we've seen so far in 2017.
Each of the following districts possess a few key baseline qualities of good school web design, including:
- A visually attractive design that works well on all devices and browsers
- An understanding of their district brand and website target audience
- A clear segmentation of content for constituent groups, individual schools and the district using smart information architecture and password-protected portals
- The ability to sell the value of their district through photos, videos, content, and design using a marketing-first design
Based on the qualities above, the top five district websites of 2017 (so far!) are as follows...
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5. Spring-Ford Area School District
Spring-Ford Area School District's website is intelligently designed, simple to navigate, and has lots of fun, interactive design elements that show the district has put time, thought, and effort into marketing their district to new families, and communicating with current ones. The responsive design, which features parallax scrolling and interactive toggle elements to make content easy-to-find.
Some of the best aspects of this district website include:
The sticky navigation on the right, that has three expandable calls-to-action, making important content for current families easy-to-access without bogging down the homepage. (Pictured above on the right side of the homepage).
The homepage videos, which showcase the district's extracurriculars and academics:
The quick links, docked on the top right, that make important content easy to access:
4. Elmbrook Public Schools
Elmbrook Public Schools in Wisconsin implements numerous modern design enhancements to sell the value of their district to prospective families, including infographics and social media feeds. Overall, their written content, which is brilliant, impactful, actionable and extremely well-written, and sells the value of the district site-wide.
The best features on Elmbrook's website include:
The eye-catching, unconventional design that encourages users to click in order to explore marketing content, including their District Excellence video.
Their "Schedule a Tour" form, which is a nudge to prospective families looking to move to visit the campus:
3. Gibraltar Public Schools
Gibraltar School District in Michigan is an example of a district that knows their brand and how to sell value. Using almost all video and photo content on their homepage, GSD knows the impact of visual content when it comes to marketing.
Here are some noteworthy elements of their design:
The embedded hero video at the top of their homepage has an audio toggle to turn volume on or off, making it easy to engage with their primary marketing content.
Because families choose a district mostly based on academics, GSD works hard to sell the value of their programs — in particular their STEM program.
GSD has a "Choose GSD" call-to-action button that remains docked in the top right, which goes to this landing page. The term "Choose GSD" implies that the district is well-aware that families have choices, which is why the landing page has compelling video and text content to convince prospective families they're making the right choice.
2. Springfield School District
Springfield School District in Pennsylvania knows they have a thing or two to prove to prospective families, as Springfield is one of the most common district names in the USA, representing 24 towns in 25 states. So how exactly do you make a name like "Springfield" stand out when it is a name that blends in? You build an amazing district website.
Here's what we love about their district website:
The overall design is simple and compelling. And while yellow and black can be difficult colors to work with, their new site is bold without being overwhelming. It also features a sticky navigation, and individual school branding for a simplified user experience.
Their homepage, which features an embedded hero video, calls-to-action, and a beautifully crafted "Our Schools" panel invites prospective families to learn more about the district.
They spent just as much time putting together their individual school pages as they did their homepage, as every single individual school page also features an embedded hero video calls-to-action, and interactive elements.
1. Lake Washington School District
Lake Washington School District is one of the biggest districts in the state, and when we were awarded their partnership in 2016, it was a project our team was excited to tackle. With a thriving community of more than 26,000 students, parents, and faculty, LWSD knew their website was going to be their most critical tool moving forward in the world of digital communication.
There is a lot to love about LWSD's website, which is why it earned the #1 spot on this list, so I encourage you to explore it yourself...but here are some of our favorite elements of their website:
The value propositions! Like Elmbrook, the text content on this website is well-thought, and elegantly incorporated so it gets the important messages across, without being text-heavy.
The individual branding on each individual school page (and there is A LOT) of them, is not only a remarkable effort, but also a prime example of a district who understands the importance of applying district brand to user experience.
The "Find it Fast" site search drop down, that not only makes it possible to search for anything across the entire website, but also access top-hit pages like lunch menus, news and calendars.
What would it take for your school to make the list? Start with a free website audit today to see where your website can improve to better-sell the value of your district, too!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.